The Sky is Falling
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion

FROM Gracia Faye Ellwood, Peaceable Table
February 2020

This story of events in an alien culture has resonance to changes in our world today, and particularly to our movement on behalf of animals. Religion presides over two conflicting cultural processes: the shaping and support of structures of meaning, and the rejection of oppressive structures of meaning.

Chinese family

East Meets West

Pearl Buck's 1930 novel East Wind: West Wind tells the story of a wealthy, aristocratic Chinese family named Kwei which is being profoundly shaken by Western influences. Proud of its ancient lineage, the family is a rigidly hierarchical community, with separate men's and women's quarters: the head wife or First Lady presides over the women's sphere of concubines and female servants, and slaves, and the children of each; the husband and lord rules the men's sphere of older sons and male servants and slaves.

Kwei-lan, the story's narrator and a daughter of the First Lady and her lord, is married at age 17 to the man to whom she has been betrothed all her life, leaving her family to join his. She is confused and distressed when her new husband, who has managed to get an education in Western medicine, asks her to unbind her painfully-achieved tiny feet in which she took pride. But, trained to please and obey him, she decides to comply, undergoing the pain all over again. Other disorienting changes take place, such as his insistence that they move out of his parents' house into their own home because of his mother's contemptuous treatment of Kwei-lan, something the girl was trained never to complain about. She feels these events must displease the gods.

But over time, Kwei-lan finds herself liking her stronger feet and increased liberty, and takes an interest in the Western science that so absorbs him. She learns that China, the Middle Kingdom, is not as she was taught, the center of the world, but one country among many. As she learns, she begins to experience a greater closeness to her husband than her parents ever had. They have a son, her pride and joy, which the husband refuses to hand over to his parents as expected--another boon of her new liberty.

But much more seismic changes come when Kwei-lan's elder brother, the family's much-cherished heir, comes back from his studies in the United States refusing to marry his betrothed, who is a stranger to him, and bringing a Western woman named Mary whom he insists is already his wife, and dearly beloved. His mother is enraged and refuses to accept the "barbarian." His father, an irresponsible hedonist, seems to find Mary interesting and amusing. But when pressed, he finally tells his son to send his toy back to her country and do his duty to the family. A dreadful scene takes place between mother and son, with the son disowning his family. Kwei-lan loves her mother, is deeply distressed, and tries to comfort her, but is disregarded. Not long afterwards, the mother dies, apparently from grief and trauma. Kwei-lan is the only one who really mourns her. But in time, as she gains the friendship of her brother and Mary, she is increasingly consoled and fulfilled.

Readers will find it difficult to understand her filial love or sympathize with the First Lady, who is proud, dictatorial, rigid, and contemptuously xenophobic, caring little for her daughter, seemingly caring nothing for her cherished son's happiness but only for his dutiful submission and production of a legally recognized grandson. At one point, however, we get a glimpse into her soul: we see the deep hurt and resentment her husband's sexual self-indulgence, sanctioned by the culture, has caused. Her inner life is loveless, held together only by empty rewards: the commanding status of First Lady, achievement of a son who becomes a stranger, and hope for a grandson. When her son rejects her central value, and she loses both son and grandson at once, she lacks the courage and breadth of soul to look beyond the values she has always embraced. Her sky falls and crushes her.

The Sacred Canopy

This story of events in an alien culture has resonance to changes in our world today, and particularly to our movement on behalf of animals. Religion presides over two conflicting cultural processes: the shaping and support of structures of meaning, and the rejection of oppressive structures of meaning. Its function of supporting meaning is common; but the critique of oppression, unfortunately, is rather rare. Meaning is vital to humanness. We need to live in a world that makes sense, where some actions are good and others are bad: e.g., most people hold that cherishing one's children is good, abusing and killing them is bad. In the Confucian culture of the Kwei family, obeying one's parents and honoring one's family are good; disregarding both for personal benefits is bad. Similarly, in every culture some things are of greater value and other things of lesser or negative value: e.g., beautiful diamonds are valuable, beautiful soap bubbles are worthless; humans (in our own group) are valuable, animals are disposable. In the world of the Kwei, males are of much greater value than females, with the female infants of slaves being disposable. Religion undergirds the main factors in such worldviews.


Sociologists tell us that we human beings acting together create our worlds of values, however firmly external they may seem. A good statement of this principle is found in Peter Berger's book The Sacred Canopy, "canopy" being used here in the metaphorical sense of the overarching sky, and beyond that, the conception of Heaven/Deity who authorizes the whole setup. Because it is a human creation, the world of values is subject to change and disintegration, and must be continually renewed by our conversations, our reaffirming language and actions. And, in turn, it shapes us, our values and intentions.

Collapse of the Canopy

Humans can deal with limited modification of these values; in fact some adventurous personalities tend to welcome change, whereas others resist most changes. The young tend to be more open than the old. But very few can deal with the permanent disintegration of the central structures of their world, even if it is an oppressive world; the soul withers. This usually happens to a whole culture when it is overridden by a very different culture, as, for example, Native American cultures when crushed by the European/American invasion. Of those who survive the physical violence, some individuals will quickly take refuge in the new worldview ("If you can't lick 'em, join 'em"); but many sink into anomie, manifesting in depression, poor health, and alcoholism or other addiction.

But this kind of whole-culture catastrophe is not the only way in which the sacred canopy falls; there is also a kind of internal anomie that can result from less drastic changes. When a growing minority (especially if it involves someone important to us) systematically overturns only one or two major values by word and deed, even if their new view is lifegiving, deep shudders of anxiety may be felt, harder to deal with for being poorly understood. Some examples: the Darwinian theory of evolution and new forms of Biblical scholarship had this effect on thousands of Protestant Christians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the changes in liturgy and practice in the Roman church sparked by the second Vatican Council of the 1960s had a similar effect on many Catholics. In both cases some benefited, finding the changes liberating; some maintained their old faith-world by a fundamentalist-type hardening of their beliefs. But others had to endure the sickening fall of their sky. One cannot always predict which values will be the crucial ones triggering internal anomie for a given person. Confusingly, even some who worked for and welcomed a liberating change may later experience the collapse; for example, there are Catholic clergy and nuns who rejoiced in the "opening of the windows" in their church but who later lost their faith. Clearly, there is much about human nature that still makes no sense by our present understanding.

In light of all this, it is helpful for us animal defenders to realize the extent of the threat that our message represents to many in the audience we seek to reach. If we see resistance only as stemming from a selfish clinging to favorite tastes, we will be more tempted to judgmentalism: how can supposedly decent people, for so trivial a reason, continue to support such a horrifying and evil system? But it may well be that they are sensing the approach of the worldquake that might result for them. Of course that does not excuse them from choosing continued numbness and violence over awakening and compassion. But it helps us to know what they are up against; and it may help us reassure them from our own experience.

A Sky Beyond

There is good news for those who courageously take the leap, yet later find that it leads to catastrophe: anomie is not necessarily fatal to the soul. One can recover. Those who lose their faith can regain it, finding a far wider sky that existed beyond the fallen canopy. (Peter Berger hints at this sky in his later book A Rumor of Angels.)


Native Americans have recovered themes from their tradition, such as deep human interdependence with the earth, and combined them with concepts from Western spirituality and ecology, thus gaining the blessing of a worldview richer than either alone. Literalist Protestants who found themselves derelict on a desert of meaninglessness after losing a God who dictated the Bible word-for-word have gained a vastly larger (if more elusive) God in a vastly larger world.

A wise example from fiction is found in George Eliot's classic novel Silas Marner, which has been mentioned before in Peaceable Table. The story tells of the eponymous hero's loss of faith after his best friend framed him for a crime, and his narrow, simple religious faith failed to clear him. After fifteen years of spiritual darkness and drought, Silas regains his faith in Providence and Unseen Love as a result of an apparently chance happening during Christmastide--an orphaned girl's toddling into his hut--and his own impulsive decision to become father and mother to her. Choosing to interpret our lives with faith, and to act with love, can help us to once again become whole persons in a human world, under a sacred canopy not altogether made by human minds.

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